Âscent — Forward
Âscent hail from Madrid (with a circumflex accent on the "A", so as not to be confused with the accent-less eponymous British progressive metal/rock band). Info on the web is not that exhaustive (just a Facebook-presence), meaning I was not able to find out when the band was established. Forward is their second full album, following Deep Schyzo Cycle from 2017, and a single released in 2019.
The musicians performing on this record are Koque Latorre (vocals, keyboards), Alvaro Fernandez (guitars, vocals), Juan Antonio Garijo (guitars, vocals), Carlos Vergara (bass, vocals), and Antonio Chaves (drums).
In terms of its lyrics, the songs cover a wide spectrum, ranging from extra-terrestrial encounters, the tolerance of the human tragedy of refugees (the touching track Giants) and the confessions of a child to his/her mother (if these lyrics were somehow autobiographic, that would be by no means easy singing/reading). The artwork in the booklet is excellent, and in particular the pictures on the cover are stunning. The latter have been taken in what is called El Túnel De La Engana (the Tunnel of Cheats), an almost seven kilometre long railway tunnel in Northern Spain, which was never used.
Âscent's music clearly belongs to the heavier category of prog. I would not go as far as calling it true prog metal, as in my ears it does not have the degree of musical versatility and complexity I attach to this type of prog. In view of this, the music reminds me of "light versions" of bands such as Fates Warning, Devin Townsend, Pain Of Salvation, and Riverside. But I also found some shades of doom and gothic metal (I know that I am venturing in territory unknown to me with this statement). This is because sometimes the music has a gloomy nature, especially the tracks Violence and The Council. Some parts of The Hole, for instance, are not unlike Black Sabbath.
Guitars, mainly staccato-like riffing, dominate the sound, with keyboards (except for the intro of The Hole) backing off and mainly acting as accompanying elements. Distinctive is the varied nature of the rhythm section, with Carlos Vergara's fluid bass lines and Antonio Chavas' accurate and versatile drumming. Striking also is the almost complete absence of solos (just one guitar solo towards the end of The Hole and basically none from the keys).
Unfortunately for my taste, with the few exceptions being the tracks Giants and especially Vate's Song, the release misses out a bit on some of the factors which make heavy prog appealing to me: catchy melodies, goosebump-inducing keyboard and guitar solos, and especially melodic choruses.
Speaking about choruses brings me to the element, which in my opinion, offers some room for improvement; the vocals. Given the fact that the sung parts play an important role on this release and that four out of the five musicians are credited with vocals, I was expecting more variety, melody, and expression. I also get the impression that the music and vocals do not always complement one another perfectly, especially concerning the heavier parts. This created a feeling with me of the singer(s) sometimes being a bit out of tune, although that probably was just an impression. Surprisingly, given the band's bias towards heavier songs, it was the vocals on the softer parts that I found to be more appealing.
When getting a new release for review, I usually encounter various scenarios with respect both to my first impression and its subsequent development ,until the review is done. The spectrum of my first impression ranges from excitement, over indifference, to "I cannot do anything with this music". This is either confirmed or refuted the more I get involved.
If I consider all the new releases I have dealt with at DPRP, most of the time an excellent first impression has stayed that way, or a more neutral one has turned to a positive one over time. Âscent's Forward does not fall under either category. Upon first listening, their music did not knock me off my feet, and despite all my efforts, this sentiment of indifference prevailed.
I liked the fluid bass playing and the varied drumming but considered the vocals as somewhat flat and not expressive enough. I also missed catchy hooks, melodies, and choruses and a more intensive use of keyboards. Of course, this is the personal opinion of a reviewer whose preferred prog rock style is not progressive metal.
Consequently, fans of hard rock with progressive elements and a little touch of doom and gothic metal are encouraged to give this release a serious try. And, dear band Âscent, let me add one more thing: you are based in a European metropolis that is one of the most seriously affected by the Corona-pandemic. Amidst that situation, you nonetheless managed to produce and release an album, the title of which can be regarded as a request, an appeal, or an invitation. That is an achievement, which has my full appreciation and respect.
Celestial Burst — The Maze
Alexis Lustenberger is an IT technician who has been playing guitar for 16 years. Eight years ago he began a project he called Celestial Burst, and here, with The Maze, he presents the first commercial release.
Joining Alexis is Kenza Laala, a French actress who went to school with Alexis, and who adds vocals to the project. What a find Kenza Laala is. With the increasing amount of great female singers currently entering the prog rock sphere, Kenza is certainly one of the best I have heard. Imagine a mix of Kate Bush and Marcella Detriot. She manages to easily glide through the octaves without any trouble. Her range is simply stunning, and she manages to easily cope with anything that Alexis throws at her. You just have to listen to Anna to be amazed and enchanted by her voice.
However this would not be as good without the writing and playing of Alexis.
The quality on display with this release goes to prove that time spent refining one's work pays off. I would imagine over the eight years that Alexis has spent writing this album, he has probably discarded more ideas than some artists have written in that same time. This dedication has proven well worthwhile, as The Maze is a stunning work.
The way Alexis writes, is to draw the listener into his work. Don't expect a flurry of notes. He creates luxurious soundscapes where every single note appears to have meaning, and so the listener is taken on a musical journey. While the album does definitely have enough to draw the prog fan in, there are still plenty of changes in tempo such as on The Place I'm Not Supposed To Be, where the dramatic shifts from acoustic guitar to thumping basslines happens so organically, it simply engages and excites in equal measure.
During the lockdown period caused by the Coronavirus, Anneke van Giersbergen made an offer to fans on her web community to send her a song, and she would chose a few where she would add her vocals. Alexis sent her a copy of what would become the album's title track The Maze, which Anneke chose to sing on. Hence the album includes two versions, one with Kenza and the other with Anneke providing vocals.
While the inclusion of Anneke van Giersbergen will hopefully draw her fans to explore the music of Celestial Burst, when comparing the two versions of The Maze, for me, Kenza's version is far superior. You can probably see I've been totally enamoured by both Alexis' brilliant compositions and Kenza's exquisite voice.
These are great songs that are different enough to find it hard for me to provide comparisons. However if you are prepared to navigate this musical maze, I'm sure its twists and turns will provide you with some unexpected rewards. I hope we don't have to wait another eight years for the next Celestial Burst.
Mental Fracture — The Mind's Desire
Swiping along on social media like Facebook can be wonderful at times. Next to seeing some of the undertakings and life stories of befriended contacts, many of my automatic algorithmic-generated messages incorporate music, obviously prog-rock related. These past few months I've encountered some very interesting bands this way, most that would normally have passed me by. So everybody thanks for sharing!
The downside to this delightful scrolling is the amount of useless advertising that comes your way in the form of sponsored messages. Time-consuming announcements that one would gladly wish-away.
Thankfully this doesn't apply to the boasts by Mental Fracture that kept popping up on my screen. I decided to investigate for the sole reason of a promised new prog rock album. A premature promise as it turns out, for they actually are still in the midst of recording it. Nevertheless it was a rewarding investigation as I have discovered their engaging 2019 EP The Mind's Eye.
Formed in Rishon Lezion, Israel in 2010, the band consists of Ori Mazuz (keyboards, vocals), Yogev Shpilman (guitars), Philip Tzukerman (bass) and Chai Maller on drums. Listening to bands like Dream Theater, Opeth and Porcupine Tree as scholars, they set out to write their own music. The Mind's Eye was the first result, recorded in Ori's bedroom. The outcome, inhibiting a lovely vintage, organic feel, sounds great. The convincing compositions address the concept of creation where the mind wants to break free in order to be able to leave an everlasting mark on the world.
With opener The Mind's Eye the band immediately sets a good standard with uplifting, catchy melodies, bursting with energy and where the strong vocals and excellent interplay between the musicians stands out. The variety on display, showing slight pomp rock tendencies from the lush keyboards and an inspiring seventies rock feel created by the dynamic rhythm section and superb organ melodies, is admirable at first. It becomes enticingly strong when halfway through the song, sparkling keys and guitar interact in a sublime Dream Theater-influenced passage. Gliding into a restrained, jazzy intermezzo it then slowly builds to an energetic ending filled with solid riffs and atmospheric synths, preceded by sensitive bass lines, dreamy vocals and some delightful early seventies Queen arrangements.
The same infectious experience is inflicted by Genesis where light prog-metal influences shine through. Glimpses of dynamic Saga appear and a Jan Akkerman (Focus) styled riff announces a sparkling piano movement going through many changes. In the powerful metal-orientated ending, the intricate bass-play is noteworthy and after a delicate passage in which the band once again showcase their ability with harmonious play, a return to the song's theme ends this instrumental track splendidly.
The second instrumental track of the EP is Bucolic. A somewhat alienating Middle Eastern-influenced oriental folk composition, it thrives on piano, sophisticated bass play, excellent acoustic guitars and percussion. After the previous four tracks, this turns out to be quite a surprise, mildly reminiscent to Pain Of Salvation's acoustic effort 12:5 in light of the captured complexities within the song. It displays the band's uniqueness, where even in this scaled down form, different themes and atmospheres reveal themselves to flow in beautiful harmony.
The jazzy and odd time signature structures of In The Eye Of The Creator remind of a delightfully restrained, yet constantly changing, melodic Pain Of Salvation. Embraced by effective bass play, and riffs alternating with synth, intricate drum textures lead to a scrumptious synth solo, after which the atmosphere changes abruptly, gliding into funky interplay with a jazzy intonation that gradually builds in intensity. Here Mazuz showcases his vocal variety by expressing different emotions, most excellently captured in the alternating passage that concludes this wondrous composition.
The highlight of the album for me is Poetic Hate. After a strong opening with engaging, thrilling melodies and lots of keyboards, it compels through its prog metal nature which excitingly transforms into funk, driven forward by playful bass and enrapturing vocals. Further delicious solos by Mazuz are backed up by a virtuously solid rhythm section before ravishingly manoeuvring into a superb guitar solo by Shpilman (in a John Petrucci style). The song then changes into a jazzy intermission filled with early seventies Queen-like textures and elegant, aggressive vocals. The swinging freestyle-jazz segment that follows, incorporating echoes of John Myung, is inspired, while the song's addictive ending could have lasted me some more. A great track which receives a warming seventies feel via the already mentioned production.
This thoroughly enjoyable EP showcases a band with potential. The musicality and interplay of the musicians is outstanding and the adventurous compositions sound fresh. And although some references and influences shine through, the songs inhibit a great amount of originality. The Oriental influence they mention themselves is minutely woven into some of the songs and only very clearly noticeable in Bucolic. That particular song though isn't capable of sustaining the exquisite prog-rock excitement of the other four tracks for me.
However, if Mental Fracture can maintain this level, they are certainly a band to watch. I look forward to what their future brings, which hopefully involves that promised new album someday. I pressed their FB-like button, so a message will automatically pop up, just in case.
Anthony Pirog — Pocket Poem
Anthony Pirog is an American jazz and fusion guitarist with a difference. As to his music, well the press release states: "file under: post-genre guitar/ post-jazz / post-rock/ avant garde / soundscape". And to be brutally honest, that's exactly what you get! His instrumental album Pocket Poem is a 2020 release and is a coherent collection of short compositions, ably assisted by Michael Formanek on bass and Ches Smith on drums.
Many of us suffer from prog ear-fatigue where we simply can't keep up with the astonishing output by some prog artists (Neal Morse and The Flower Kings spring to mind). Sometimes it can seem repetitive and formulaic and you need, now and again, something different to get your teeth, or even your ears into. If that is the case for you, then look no further than this album.
Pirog is a musician who is not constrained by a genre or label but someone who embraces other forms like ambient, acoustic, post-rock, jazz-fusion and so on. It's all in there and it's very good and refreshing.
Quite a few tracks are less than two minutes; short expositions of various forms and textures. A standout, longer track is Honeymoon Room where acoustic finger picking is then followed by very thoughtful electric guitar work with support from Formanek and Smith. Hints of rock and jazz. Very good.
Pirog has his own inimitable style when it comes to finger picking, as shown on Sitting Under Stars. It can seem simple but it's effective and not overly garnished with an over-abundance of flourishes and trills.
Other tracks could easily be considered as film-score material. For instance, The Severing could be part of some sci-fi, deep space story.
Another track I have to mention is Spinal Confusion as it reminded me of Radiohead. I think maybe that is because of the intro. Think of something like Kid A and you might get some idea.
Overall, the music flows and ebbs in a beautiful way, from sparse guitar soundscapes to busy rock based sounds. It can seem sinister in places and sublime in others. Even though some of these pieces are short, there's an overall completeness to the album, like it should be a soundtrack to some movie.
Anyway, this is an enjoyable album, well put-together and produced, with solid musicianship throughout.
Yobrepus — Mycelium Days
Yobrepus, apparently to be pronounced as you would read it backwards, hail from Norway and this is their second album.
After moving in heavier-and-heavier musical circles for a while, it was time to spend time with a more mellow album and possibly to enjoy the surprise that reviewers will get when taking on an album outside their normal fields.
According to the press info, the band describe their second album as moving towards more progressive areas. The opening track is a homage to songs like Echoes and Lark's Tongues In Aspic. I wouldn't describe it like that, preferring to let the song stand on its own. Using Mellotron and quoting 1970s prog does not mean this is a retro-prog album. The production is modern and top-notch, without having that 1980s sterility.
While Down is a bit more song-structured, the rest of the songs are painting a picture. The sounds of post-rock grace many parts of the album. The music could use more haunting or intense sections to fit my taste, but when it happens, it is like a warm blanket shielding your perception from anything other than the sound.
The warm voice of Mats Sivetsen is an important part of the sound but all instruments contribute to this all-encompassing feeling. The excellent, full, yet clear mix and production brings out all elements beautifully.
It's interesting to be reminded of their countrymen Gazpacho, even though I can mention hardly anything from the sound on this album that drives such a comparison. It's the atmosphere, more than anything. Gazpacho go a little further in intensity, while Yobrepus are more in the Marillion corner. Choir Of Young Believers and Sigur Rós also come to mind and readers preferring the softer side of Porcupine Tree should also take a listen.
Personally I prefer a little more power and greater intensity in the musical climaxes to play this during the day. But as I already have a lot of heavy music to get me going and to give and release energy, this is a very good album for late at night while having your last whisky before sleep. The closing song Piao offers a fitting soundtrack to the closing-up of a day.